Google and Apple have launched their coronavirus contact-tracing system on smartphones around the world.
This gives public health agencies, including the NHS, the option of building contact-tracing apps based on the companies’ technology.
“This technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts,” Apple and Google said.
The system, which the tech giants refer to as “exposure notifications”, is being released in software updates on Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android smartphones.
Representatives for the two companies said they expected apps using the system to appear soon, as several countries were already using the technology in engineering tests.
Experts said that would put pressure on the UK government, which has built its own contact-tracing app that does not use Google and Apple’s technology.
The app, which is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight, has been accused of posing a risk to privacy, as it uses a centralised method of checking if contacts are at risk, rather than the decentralised one employed by Google, Apple and other similar projects.
NHS England’s app has also been reported to have security and usability flaws, including not working on older Android smartphones.
“Now decentralised proximity tracing infrastructure is ready-to-go on people’s phones, we are likely to see interoperable apps with large uptake quickly emerge around the world,” said Michael Veale, lecturer in digital rights and regulation at University College London (UCL).
“The question is whether England continues to go it alone and go against the grain, or to join its neighbours’ efforts.”
A number of countries have already confirmed that they will use Google and Apple’s system, including Germany and Switzerland.
The Spanish government has announced it would be “working with the government of the Canary Islands to study the possibility of carrying out the first pilot project of an interoperable and privacy-friendly app”.
Despite claiming that the Isle of Wight trial has been successful, in recent days UK government ministers downplayed the importance of the app.
Junior health minister Lord Bethell said: “We have therefore changed the emphasis of our communications and plans to put human contact-tracing at the beginning of our plans and to regard the app as something that will come later in support.”
The system released by Google and Apple is not an app, but a technology framework – known as an application programming interface (API) – which can be used to create an app.
Speaking to journalists, representatives for the companies stressed that the technology was designed to augment, not replace, existing contact-tracing efforts.
But they said that if the app worked well, with secure privacy protections, it could help “public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively”.
Apple’s phones, in particular, are not compatible with apps that use Bluetooth for tracking purposes, which can be shut down or drain the battery.
Representatives for the companies said that their system ensured that any battery loss would be trivial, as well as preserving privacy, which they believed was key to widespread adoption.
Apple and Google said: “Our technology is designed to make these apps work better.
“User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”